Sir Thomas Beecham

One of Britain’s finest conductors. And a crusty old curmudgeon.

When Tommy was a young thing, his dad, a terribly rich man, asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I wish to become a conductor,” the lad replied. Instead of buying him a bus or clipping him round the ear, the pill salesman bought him an orchestra. And a stick to wave at it. The stories of the great stick waver are legion:

One of his mildest lines was delivered on a cold Monday morning in Manchester. The orchestra was suffering from the chill, hangovers, etc., and the first rehearsal didn’t go too well. After suffering for a reasonably long time, the Maestro silenced the orchestra with a few taps of his baton, shook his head and announced, “Gentlemen, it sounds like an Eisteddfod”.

Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Malcolm Sargent, although they were both excellent conductors and shared a birthday, did not get on too well. Beecham frequently referred to the BBC Symphony Orchestra as ‘The Sargent’s Mess’. When he heard of Sargent’s knighthood he remarked, “I didn’t know he’d been knighted. Why, it was only yesterday he was doctored”.

Sargent was conducting a series of concerts in Tel Aviv at a time when there were many Palestinian attacks. One concert had to be halted part of the way through when the hall came under fire from the rebels. Beecham, on hearing of this; “I hadn’t realised that Arabs were so musical”.

He called Herbert von Karajan “A kind of musical Malcolm Sargent”.

He wasn’t so fond of the music of Edward Elgar (more fool he). He called the A flat symphony “The musical equivalent of St Pancras Station”. Oh well, I like that too….

Sir Thomas was travelling one day in a no-smoking compartment on a train belonging to the Great Western Railway. A lady entered the compartment and lit a cigarette, saying, “I’m sure you won’t object if I smoke.”

“Not at all,” replied Beecham, “provided that you don’t object if I’m sick.”

“I don’t think you know who I am,” the lady haughtily pointed out. “I’m one of the directors’ wives.”

“Madam,” said Beecham, “if you were the director’s only wife, I should still be sick.”

He was asked once if he’d ever been to a certain stately home. “Oh yes,” he replied. “I spent a month down there last weekend”.

To a horn player who had an individual approach to rhythm; “I suppose I cannot expect you to be with us all the time, but perhaps you would be kind enough to keep in touch now and then”.

Tuning up one day, he asked the principal oboist for an A. The man supplied the correct note with an extremely powerful vibrato. “Gentlemen,” Beecham solemnly advised, “take your pick”.

One day he asked a new member of the orchestra for his name. “Ball, sir.” “Oh. How very singular”.

A reporter once asked if he had ever conducted Stockhausen

“No, but I once trod in some.”

One particular Beecham story is, surely, among the most re-told of all – that of the rehearsal of the Boccherini-Grutzmacher “Cello Concerto in B Flat”. The soloist, Guillhermina Suggia, was not having a good day, to put it mildly, and the great man was sorely pained. He stopped the rehearsal and looked at her sadly. “Madam, you have between your legs one of the greatest instruments that God has devised for man’s pleasure, and all that you can do to the damned thing is scratch at it!”

One evening he arrived in the orchestra pit at the Royal Opera House, slapped a score down on the desk, turned to bow to the audience, and turned back to the orchestra. The leader of the orchestra got up and whispered in Beecham’s ear that his score was for “The Magic Flute”, when the performance that night was actually of “The Marriage of Figaro”.

“My dear fellow, you amaze me!” said Beecham. Then he closed the score and conducted the whole of the opera from memory!

And a few quips from the great man:

  • The English may not like music, but they like the noise it makes.
  • A Musicologist is a man who can read music, but who can’t hear it.
  • No operatic star has yet died soon enough for me.
  • Movie music is noise… even more painful than my sciatica.
  • Composers and musicians have always starved and, as this is a sentimental country, I think the tradition should be continued.
  • Brass bands are all very well in their place. That place is outdoors and several miles away.
  • That’s absolutely typical of Haydn; he goes to all the trouble of writing a Military Symphony and then omits the side drum. Well, we shall have to rectify that.
  • Try everything once except folk dancing and incest.
    (This one has also been credited to Oscar Wilde – but so have many things.)
  • Composers should write tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle.
  • On Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony: “What can you do with it? It’s like a lot of yaks jumping about.”
  • Her singing reminds me of a cart coming downhill with the brake on.
  • The harpsichord – sounds like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof.
  • Great music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and leaves the memory with difficulty.
  • There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.
  • I have been all round the world and have formed a very poor opinion of it.